John Denver Epiphany
I was enjoying a rare evening at home with my wife, listening to some records (yes – records). We were going through some sides that haven’t been spun in ages. A touch of jazz, a bit of disco, some “easy listening”, and then we ran across a record that I needed to spin again and again and again. It was John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High. Fantastic! He was a brilliant tunesmith and that song “Prisoners” is a work of art. So here I am living in an entirely Dominican neighborhood of Manhattan listening to John Denver… Huh!?! What’s going on here?
A great thing about New York is that it’s a veritable smorgasbord of jazz music. It’s all here. You can go out on any night and find the specific style that you really dig. Bebop, Big Band, Vocal, Latin Jazz, Free Jazz, Swing, Post-Bop, Lounge Jazz, Experimental, Student Ensembles, Electric, etc., the list goes on and on. All of the music that I love to play on my horn.
When pausing to reflect, I am aware of a dramatic difference between the music that IS happening and the music that was taught to me during my previous academic existence. The academic musical canon contains “correct” music that you “should” listen to, especially as a trumpeter. There is a rich history of classical (and jazz) music that is Right. The repertoire contains famous orchestral works and excellent solo opportunities, it traverses the beauty of the baroque all the way to the angst of contemporary atonal composers, plus it can offer the opportunity to perform music written by the world’s greatest composers. I really do love this music, which is good, considering the years of study and performance that I have invested both as a student and as a teacher. Yet this diligent study is not significantly represented within my current world of sound.
As an artist, there is a constant need to self analyze, to reflect upon one’s creative output. I carefully consider the music that I would like to present, especially as a leader. I realize that life is too short to invest in a path that is not true. But something seems unsettling. There’s a hole in my head. What’s missing? Why don’t I feel complete when combining these two huge influences? Classical and jazz?
I like John Denver’s music.
Here are some additional artists and bands that I’m almost embarrassed to like: Lionel Richie, Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Iron Maiden, ZZ Top, Cinderella, Guns & Roses, Living Color, Primus, Rage Against the Machine, Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Sting, and the list goes on and on. They’re not highbrow or serious enough for classical musicians; and they’re not cool or obscure enough for jazz musicians. But there it is, dig it.
My complete musical package includes everything I’ve ever internalized through repetitive listening, including the Good, Bad and Ugly. I need to accept and deal with these three sides of my musical personality: Classical, Jazz AND Rock. I’m sure Rock and Pop has influenced my musical subconscious as much as jazz and classical, perhaps even more. Now I can play what needs to be played.
Axiom of Jazz: Choice lies not with what you export to the audience, but with what you import into your subconscious through diligent study.
If you aspire to be an improvising musician, you should play what needs to be played according to your own set of ears. Do NOT play what you think someone else thinks should be played; they hired you, or paid to listen to you, wanting to hear what you think should be played. Truly improvised creative musical ideas are based upon your musical subconscious, primarily built through what you choose to listen to over the course of your lifetime. This is what comprises your “voice” as a jazz artist. Believe in your own voice – I finally do.